Outrage and Longing

“The desire to surpass our limits is as essential to the structure of the human as the recognition that we cannot.” —Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought

To live with integrity these days is to live inside the conflict between outrage and longing. But, if we become practiced in the art of paradoxical living we will see that dancing on the high wire between these two towers may be our best chance for grace-filled living.

“If we were God,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “we could change moral principles into sovereign law. Were God Himself to enact such a law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.”

And there’s the rub. Being made ‘a little lower than the angels,’ in the quaint phrasing of the King James Bible, means we are beings who desire wholeness; the state of ‘being made’ means that we will never experience that. We live within the limitations — and the grandeur — of moral freedom in which the desire for the reign of goodness sometimes overrides the understanding that goodness flourishes only where it is wanted, gifted, and received. As Neiman points out, magically changing moral principles into law, even if done by God, would jinx the whole thing because freedom means there is a genuine choice to be made. Making those choices every day is the burden of freedom and the brightness of being human in the image of God. Moral freedom is a form of creativity, available to all of us.

Rollo May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, quotes Rainier Rilke on withdrawing from psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke knew that creativity for the artist surges up from the depths, a necessary fire in the mind and heart. Rollo May put creativity and evil in the same room. Creativity, he mused, comes from the rage within us against death and destruction.

If we are made in the image of God and that image in us is the power to create, then how could evil threaten creativity? God, as creator, never creates for destruction because all God’s work is created for life. When we create — and we do — our sense of direction is not inerrant. We create in all directions, some of them winding off to evil and all of them subject to losing their way.

But creative power, moral or artistic, is no guarantee against a certain perversity. Put up a sign for “Wet Paint” and see how long it takes for fingerprints to appear. What would happen, we think, if we did this, this thing we’ve been warned never to do? Let’s try it — just to see what would happen. If it’s awful, we’ll know and we’ll never do it again. And off we go. And we find that this evil, now loosed in the world, arrives without a warning label, with no expiration date, and without operating instructions. The terrible truth about creative work is that it can be turned to destruction and that there are always some who will do that just for the hell of it.

One of the ways our outrage can lead our moral creativity astray is to imagine that God resents our natural powers and is suspicious of our freedom. Thomas Merton calls this Promethean theology and comments in The New Man that “This means that man must either save his soul by a Promethean tour de force, without God’s help, or else that man must turn his freedom inside out, stew up all his natural gifts into a beautiful guilt-complex, and crawl towards God on his stomach to offer Him the results in propitiation.” But this is to deeply misjudge God’s love and the grace that is ours.

We are not worms. Our moral and spiritual freedom before God raises us to our feet, lifts our sights, and erases the false image of God we conjure up. “Grace,” says Merton, “is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self.”

“The fantasy of replacing God is the test by which morality itself is decided,” says Neiman. To imagine, with longing, a better world is the flip side of outrage at the present one. It’s the outrage that compels us to imagine a newer world; it’s the longing that endures when we admit that our best efforts will probably not outlast us. But the visioning of such a world, even with all our limitations out at the edges of our sightlines, gives us the energy of hope.

Neiman opens the windows and runs up the shades: “Integrity requires affirming the dissonance and conflict at the heart of experience,” she writes. “It means recognizing that we are never, metaphysically, at home in the world. This affirmation requires us to live with the mixture of longing and outrage that few will want to bear.”

Reaching beyond our expectations is part of our human destiny; falling short is our fate. We are threading our way between hubris and humiliation. There is another way, but it’s much more difficult. This is where faith rides the rails to keep us safe. We need the reach to go beyond, but patience, humility, and good humor helps in knowing that we can do so without trying to usurp God or having to crawl before Him.

Another take on this is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy when he writes, “The church is that place in human society where men are disturbed by the word of the eternal God, which stands as a judgment upon human aspirations. But it is also the place where the word of mercy, reconciliation and consolation is heard: ‘Thou dost well that it was in thine heart.’ Here human incompleteness is transcended though not abolished. Here human sin is overcome by the divine mercy, though man remains a sinner.”

Outrage and longing is not about winners and losers, it’s about “Those who endure to the end….” We’re not required to win; we’re invited to travel with “that great cloud” of large-souled ones who have borne their witness before us in all times and all places. If hope means anything and if love lives up to its reputation a time will come when justice and mercy will be the way in the great day of the Lord.

It makes no sense to set a date and expect the arc of justice to touch down in that precise moment. We don’t set the clocks or even wind them up. They were running before we got here and will continue after we’re dead. But it does matter to regard our time and how we spend the little of it that we have.

Our outrage alone will not save this sorry, stubborn, strange, and beautiful world; according to our primal myth that has been done in hope already. So, there’s no need for us to presume that we are the hinge of history the universe didn’t know it was looking for. Nor will longing alone be enough. We need them both: the push of outrage to change our world, the pull of longing to heal our restless souls.

Yet, we each have a part to play — perhaps several parts. That much is clear. How we play it is the question, and for that we need patience for ourselves and each other.

If we have a conscience and compassion our outrage can propel us beyond our reticence. If we also live with longing our limits will be no barrier to God’s healing and sustaining grace.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Eduardo Sanchez / Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8864

Poor comfort for Trump haters…

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The politics of the church is a far more dangerous that of the government. But the mix of the two is deadly. It seems we are on the cusp of combined hate. The Investivative Judgment is worse than towth Corinthians. One is bad theology the other is simple ignorance.


Apparently outrage is closely related to hate; and the morality of hate is dependant on what is hated. Even God is said to hate - hate the sin. but love the sinner. Do we have that prerogative as well…

The NT talks a lot about loving “your enemy”, and we try to apply this mandate across the board, especially at the present time. We demonstrate for all manner of ideologies, with demonstrable hate for, what we call, the “opposition”. So, the question is, does the Christian have room for any kind of hate?

Jesus preached the idea of “walking the extra mile” when compelled to walk one; and to “love your enemy”. With those words glaring at us, we try to conjure up love in all instances when perceived evil shows its face. How much freedom to “hate” do we have?

Jesus spoke to individual people. “Love YOUR enemy”; “turn the other cheek”; “walk the extra mile” - all are pointed at individuals confronted by evil. How about evil pointed at another, in our presence? Are we allowed to react against evil, when someone else is threatened? Are we allowed to defend the defenceless? Is it our duty to defend the defenceless? Are governments allowed to defend its citizens from evil - or are they bound by “turn the other cheek”?

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The use of this in-your-face phrase reveals much about one’s conversational style.


Was that really so in your face?

How about being called Hitlerians? Or being run out of restaurants or theaters or being told you are to be harassed at the store or the gas station or at any place you might find yourself? And this by an elected official who was surprised by the pushback!

The problem on the left is that many believe their on rhetoric.

Look at the “outrage” expressed this last weekend over a policy Trump had rescinded in a couple of weeks but that Obama had had in place for some time. Is that faux outrage or just hypocrisy?

V V[quote=“ajshep, post:6, topic:16255”]
Was that really so in your face?

First of all the use is an invective. It is most often used as an accusation. Secondly, it is insulting. To use it implies the accused is so simple and uncomplicated that he doesn’t have that ability to disapprove of certain behaviors or policies without disapproving globally and "hatefully."Thirdly, accusing a person of being hateful is not loving. I’ll even support the last reason with scripture. “And they will know that we are Christians by our love,” but it should be enough to say that it just isn’t nice. (Even when it’s true.)


I make a distinction between outrage and hate. For me, in this context, outrage is a response to perceived evil, especially as it has to do with the oppression of the defenceless (as you point out). In fact, I think we are expected to be outraged without hatred toward the offender. It’s a tough call, but I think that’s what Jesus is calling us to do. Without citing texts I’m sure we can all recall occasions wherein Jesus shows outrage at how some treat others. On that note, it’s also interesting (and challenging to us) to see that Jesus often defends others against hatred, injustice, and discrimination, but rarely defends himself. But as I hope I got across in the essay, outrage is not enough. It can quickly turn into outright hatred in which we lash out at the other person against a perceived offense against us. That’s why we should allow our longing for God’s justice and peace to also have a place in our feelings and actions. Our longing keeps us humble and focused outward; our outrage, within its limits, is a recognition of injustice and a spur to action.


All bets are off when it comes to confronting evil against the defenceless. As a parent I make no excuses defending my children, and by extension, other children. Evil takes on all kinds of faces, but “evil by another face, is still evil”.

Evil toward our own person is quite another thing. This is where our egos come into play, and justice blurs. This is where “the good fight of faith” happens.


What does it mean to “resist evil,” especially when the evil we are resisting is seen by so many others as a good, and see our resistance as itself evil? When Bonhoeffer, rightly or wrongly (still debated by Christian ethicists and theologians) chose to resist Hitler by seeking his assassination, those who sided with Nazi ideology saw Bonhoeffer as the one who needed to die. In the end, sometimes history will judge which side was good or evil. When it does not, we leave it to God.

In our own political reality here in the US, those who resist Trump may believe they are resisting “evil,” while those who defend Trump and resist the “left” believe the same. It would be nice if it was always clear to all which is which, but there are times when it is not. So we live between two poles and do what we can to see Jesus in and through all the noise and pray that the good will prevail.


Agreed. I would defend any defenseless person, child or not, if I possibly could.

Mmmm…I’m gonna defend myself too. But, that’s me. If you would choose differently, I support your choice!

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The problem is that the “outrage” is purely political and not based on some moral superiority in the outragee.

  • Obama had the same policy sans “outrage”.
    In the US:
  • 2,700,000 children are separataed from their parents who are incarcerated, sans “outrage”.
  • 400,000 are in foster care again without outrage.
  • 600,000 are in military families, separated from at least one parent
  • 16,000 are living in inadequate shelters (worse than at the border) in NYC alone.
    And there is outrage at 2300 illegal children who should not have been brought??

So, I am unipressed with this purely political stance masquerading as virtue on this matter.
You could complain that they are refuges. But we don’t know that, and can’t without a hearing, and there is such an influx, it is impossible to handle all the folk. We have a system of legal immigration that is overwhelmed. Criticizing Trump for trying to solve the problem that no one else has been able to is, well, outrageous.

I agree with you on this. It is not so clear cut as to be able to pick out the evil and the good. And prayer is essential.

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You’ve read a great deal into this essay. I can’t see why you’d object to approving moral virtue as a central part of Christian faith and practice.

Honestly, I don’t know how I would react if I were to be confronted personally; but I have no doubt if my kids were at risk. Based on how I react to ideological attacks, I suppose I would defend myself as well.

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I apologize for my cynicism. When outrage is mentioned, and I think it has been mentioned by you in this context, it is usually a political one. “I am outraged at Trump ripping children from their mothers!” And it is just much more complex than that.

The essay was well researched and insightful. When I look at the world, I am usually more saddened than outraged at the horrible choices so many make. The prophets were angry, and God is pictured as angry as well. We have no idea what he has to see, because he sees it all, every suffering. As EGW ways, if we saw it all, we could not bear it. But of course we can be the cause of some of it ourselves. A humble repentant life is what seems to be called for.

May God bless you and your thinking.


The temptation to engage in selective historical revision is amazing…

That’s true…hard to imagine such a horrifying situation. But, I think my “self-preservation gene” would kick in.

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Like I said…Poor comfort for Trump haters…

Outrage is a reaction to perceived wrong done; hate is directed toward the person doing the wrong, both coming from our emotions - the outrage more than the hatred. When Jesus tells us not to get angry, he realizes we often have no control over anger; but then he asks us not to let the sun go down on our anger. This is where hatred develops into something more than a reaction to evil. One is situational; the other personal.

It brings up an observation. The Adventist’s relationship to God is very often devoid of emotion. In fact, emotions are looked on with suspicion; when in fact, our emotions are a more honest indication of who we really are, at the core. What reaches us emotionally, tells us more about ourselves than does our intellect. (I think). Of course it’s not that sharply drawn distinction, but the two do come from different parts of our brains. That said, what makes us different from the animals is that our frontal lobes are more developed and can reign in our emotions. But can one be relied upon, while excluding the other…

What’s happening in the US today, both sides are appealing to our emotions - one more than the other (in my opinion). Politics is about knowing which emotional “buttons to push”, accessing the primitive part of our brains.

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